Dispatch from New York: ‘Historic moment’ as City divests from, sues fossil fuel industry

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Feb 11, 2018 No Comments ›› Dominic Frongillo

Recently, I was in downtown Manhattan at the Manhattan Youth Center, a lively center full of children three blocks from City Hall. Five years ago, the building was flooded to the second floor with standing water when Superstorm Sandy cost the lives of 44 New Yorkers and $19 billion in damage in hours.

Without dramatic action, many kids playing in the Youth Center today will live to see the building flooded again — permanently — as accelerating climate change causes sea levels to rise six feet in their lifetimes.

With so much at stake, it was a fitting venue for a historic moment.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (center) and Comptroller Scot Stringer (center left) announce that the nation’s largest city will divest from and sue the fossil fuel industry over climate change (Photo credit: Dominic Frongillo)

 

WE SAY “NO MORE”

In the early afternoon a few weeks ago, the room was packed to the brim, with television cameras lined up in the back. Rows of reporters, advocates, and staff bustled with anticipation. Mayor Bill de Blasio and dignitaries walked in, and many broke into applause.

Mayor de Blasio then made a momentous announcement: the night before, New York City filed a lawsuit against the five largest big oil and gas companies — seeking billions of dollars from BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell for damages from climate change.

Remembering the 44 New Yorkers who lost their lives during Sandy, the mayor said that recovering and protecting the city of 8.5 million people from severe impacts of climate change will cost many billions more, and that time has come to hold accountable the companies doing the most to worsen the crisis.

With determination, de Blasio said: “For decades Big Oil ravaged the environment. They copied Big Tobacco — denied, denied, denied that their product was lethal. Meanwhile, they hooked society on that lethal product, knowing the damage, having all the evidence. They used all the tools at their disposal to deepen the crisis for their own profit.”

“Today, the nation’s biggest city says ‘no more.’ It’s time for them to start paying for the damage they’ve done. It’s time to take responsibility for the devastation they have wrought.”

PROFOUND MOMENT

It was a deeply profound moment, and one that seemed inevitable.

For years, cities and towns on tightening budgets have faced an ever-growing series of costly, catastrophic floods, raging fires, punishing hail storms, and unrelenting droughts. While serving in office, my hometown of Caroline NY was hit by two 100-year storms in five years, causing millions of dollars of damages to our and surrounding communities. Around the world, emergency funds run dry and must be refilled year after year.

Yet, it is mere prelude to the future. Scientists predict that by century’s end, much more severe impacts will be the norm. Rising oceans will flood coastlines around the world, and it will cost trillions to build massive sea walls just to keep major coastal cities dry on a sunny day. The age of consequences has begun.

Amid deepening crises and absence of federal leadership, cities are beginning to ask: who will pay?

A family looks at the devastation of their home and neighborhood after Superstorm Sandy

 

“PUTTING OUR MONEY WHERE OUR MOUTH IS”

By challenging the fossil fuel companies who have contributed the most to global warming to pay for the damages they caused, Mayor de Blasio said: “We never wait for federal action. We will take our own action to protect our own people. We are going to lead the fight against climate change as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.”

But the city is not stopping there. Comptroller Scott Stringer, the chief financial officer, then announced that New York City will begin dropping fossil fuels from the city’s investments. The city invests billions of dollars in hundreds of fossil fuel companies, whose assets must stay in the ground for humanity to survive.

By putting its money where its mouth is, the city of Wall Street is protecting its investments from the “carbon bubble” and sending a powerful message to markets — the age of fossil fuels is over.

BAR FOR LEADERSHIP “DRAMATICALLY RAISED”

When the mayor and officials concluded their remarks, activist Bill McKibben was given the floor. He told the assembled press that in his 30 years of writing about climate change, this was one of a handful of truly important moments.

“Today the nation’s largest city takes on the world’s mightiest, most irresponsible industry for the devastation they are causing,” McKibben said.

Author and activist Noami Klein followed, saying that with the City’s announcement, “the bar for what it takes to call yourself a climate leader has been dramatically raised.”

New York’s announcement ushers in a new era when we the people, through our governments, begin holding the world’s most powerful industry to account for its decades of denial and deception. Coming from the global financial capital, it already inspiring other governments to follow suit (literally).

Students from NYU calling on New York State Comptroller DiNapoli to drop fossil fuel investments from the state pension fund

 

FROM THE GROUND UP

This historic moment was made possible by years of grassroots organizing by New Yorkers. Students led, pushing universities like Syracuse and Columbia to drop fossil fuels from endowments. Since Sandy, thousands have called on their elected officials in New York State and City to follow suit.

Comptroller Stringer said, “thank you to the activists who emailed, called, protested outside our meetings. Pushing government makes us better. In democracy, persistence is a virtue.”

Last June, I am proud to have stood with 220+ local officials from 50 counties who, days after Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris accords, we mobilized to call for protecting pensioners and our future by dropping fossil fuels from the state pension fund.

 

News coverage from Elected Officials to Protect New York’s letter of 220+ local lawmakers calling on New York State to drop fossil fuel investments

 

We made headlines and within months, Governor Andrew Cuomo became the first governor in the country to publicly call for divestment. Hours later, New York City’s announcement followed.

These huge wins show how empowering citizens and elected officials to act boldly can make an enormous impact. That’s why we at Elected Officials to Protect New York need your help.

We are building a movement of communities across New York and beyond to divest from and hold fossil fuel companies accountable. Can you join us and support our work?

Your support goes a long way to helping local leaders on the front lines of climate change to act boldly to secure our future.

 

Thank you for all you do!

In solidarity,
Dominic